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Despite the blur created by the routinization of terrorism, when one atrocity supplants the next with such rapidity that we lose even the ability to mourn, several clarifying moments have emerged from the last 18 months of war. First was the lynching, in October 2000, of two Israeli reservists inside a Ramallah police station, which erased the distinction between Arafat's Palestinian Authority and "the extremists." Then there was the bombing, last June, of a discotheque filled with Russian teenagers on a Friday night in Tel Aviv, which erased the distinction between settlements and secular Israel. And last week there was the seder massacre, which merged mass murder with myth. "in every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us," read one newspaper headline about the massacre, borrowing the Hagaddah's mythic rendition of Jewish history. Even those of us who despise the far right's comparison of Israel's predicament to the Holocaust recognized this moment: The Nazis, after all, selected seder night to begin the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Pragmatic Israelis, who usually avoid the grandiose language of good versus evil, have been forced by the seder massacre to concede that our conflict with the Palestinians isn't just a local squabble between competing nationalisms, but part of a global war against extremist Islamism--the latest totalitarian movement, after Nazism and Soviet communism--to "rise up against us" and target the Jews as its frontline enemy in a war for global domination.

The attack on the festival of freedom was a taunt--a reminder that we are no longer free in our land. Instead, we are being reghettoized through a gradually constricting siege that has taken from us a precious expression of our sovereignty--our ability to roam freely, to engage in the near--sensuous ritual of possessing the land through tactile exploration. The first intifada denied us freedom of movement in the territories and the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. This intifada has done that for the country as a whole. We are in danger of becoming a nation of agoraphobes. I know Israelis who don't leave their homes except for work and quick forays for groceries. My four-year-old son's baby-sitter won't take the half-dozen children in her care to the park downstairs. The fear undermines even the refuge of one's own home: One friend, who lives in a Jerusalem neighborhood where a car bomb was recently discovered in the underground garage of an apartment building, lies awake at night worrying that his building is about to explode. During the Gulf war, Shlomo Lahat, the former mayor of Tel Aviv, denounced his city's residents as cowards for fleeing missile attacks; now he has called on Israelis to stay in their homes and avoid public places.

And the fear has not only forced us into our homes; it has locked us out of our national, communal space. In our dread of public places, notes Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, lies a threat to our collective identity. Striking at a seder--which celebrates the founding of the Jewish people--is an unbearable symbol of the war against the Jewish collective. We are in the grip of an experiment testing how long a society can endure under relentless terrorism before it begins to disintegrate. If the experiment continues unchecked, we will become a completely atomized society--or no longer a society at all. A state founded on the survival instinct of the Jewish people risks devolving into the survival instinct of the individual Jew. Rather than see Israel as the answer to Jewish survival, we are beginning to see it as a threat. Before I moved to Israel 20 years ago, Israeli relatives and friends would ask me when I was planning to settle here, convinced that this was the obvious place for a Jew to live. Now they ask me when I'm planning to return to New York. Our withdrawal from collective Israeli space could lead many here to withdraw from Israel altogether. And mass emigration of Israelis is precisely the goal of this Palestinian war.

And so, this time, the absence of a comprehensible government plan didn't matter. This time, we understood that striking at the Palestinian Authority--a collective response to the assault on our collective being--was itself the plan. On seder night we knew that the Israeli restraint of the last two weeks, intended to accommodate the Zinni mission, was over. We had to hit back--not just against those attacking us, but against our own paralysis. That's why--for all the talk of draft resistance--almost all of the 20,000 reservists mobilized for the invasion of Palestinian territories showed up, without the usual attempts to evade reserve duty by pleading sick or citing family or work--related emergencies.

The Palestinians presented us with an unbearable dilemma, forcing us to choose between the two non-negotiable demands of Jewish history: not to be oppressors and not to be naïve about our enemy's intentions.

In one sense, it hardly matters that this military operation won't stop the suicide bombers. (Indeed, nothing short of destroying the terrorist infrastructure known as the Palestinian Authority is likely to contain the terrorist assault.) In this war for the survival of our public spaces, reaffirmation of our collective identity is itself a victory. The Zionist revolution has long since forfeited its ideal of the Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer; now, it is the Jewish fighter whose existence is in the balance.

After the Holocaust, the only enemy with a chance of defeating the Jews was one that could hide behind its own weakness. The Palestinians presented us with an unbearable dilemma, forcing us to choose between the two non--negotiable demands of Jewish history: not to be oppressors and not to be naïve about our enemy's intentions. The very weakness of the Palestinians has been their strength: Precisely because of their vulnerability, we minimized their malevolence, going so far as to create and even arm Arafat's Authority. Now, though, the Palestinian war of national suicide has removed our guilt and squeamishness.

For Israelis, there is something surreal in the world's preoccupation with political solutions to the Middle East crisis. Mitchell-Tenet, the Zinni mission, the Saudi plan--all assume a conflict amenable to rational solutions, a Palestinian leadership ready to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state. But Arafat in his besieged office proclaiming his desire to die like the seder suicide bomber--"Oh God, give me martyrdom like this," he told AL-JAZEERA on March 29--should have put to rest the fantasies of the peace-makers. Does anyone imagine that the Israeli public--even those of us who in principle are ready for almost any concession in exchange for real peace--will accept a plan that involves "sharing" Jerusalem with Arafat?

The world asks anxiously: What will be the consequences of Israel's invasion? For Israelis, that isn't even a question. For us, the only question that matters, at least for now, is whether the fragile collective identity of "Israeli"--stretched thin over a bewildering ethnic and ideological cacophony--will continue to exist. That question will be answered not by the results of the battle, but simply by our willingness to fight it.

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